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Reservation Wars

Ted Gioia | June 30, 2014 | Story Tech World

In the 16 years since it was founded in San Francisco, OpenTable has grown to dominate the restaurant-reservation universe, with more than 31,000 restaurants using its platform worldwide. But while its service is free for diners, it’s expensive for restaurants, which typically pay a $249 monthly subscription fee. (After our issue went to press, OpenTable was acquired by Priceline for $2.6 billion.)

So it’s little wonder that a rash of upstart companies and apps have arisen to challenge OpenTable’s monopoly. But do any of them have what it takes to unseat the founding father? To find out, I used them to try to land hot Friday- and Saturday-night reservations—and found that while OpenTable may still reign supreme, it shouldn’t get too comfortable on its throne.

Acquired by Yelp last year, SeatMe is a reservation system seemingly positioned to be the Pepsi to OpenTable’s Coke—it offers restaurants nearly the same services as opentable, but with a cheaper $99 monthly subscription.
Competitive Edge: Easier hosting system, no cover fees, more affordable.
Weakness: A design uncannily similar to OpenTable’s, though the bare-bones reservation interface lacks photos and information about price range and cuisine.
Our Experience: There weren’t many restaurants using the system, so I had to dig for anything remotely hot. After a long search, I reserved a table at Mozzeria, a solid Mission pizza joint.

Table8 sells last-minute reservations at trendy restaurants that set aside a handful of coveted weekend tables at peak hours (7 to 8:30 p.m.). A two-top goes for $20, a four-top for $25. Finally, an app for San Francisco’s most disenfranchised tribe: the lazy rich.
Competitive Edge: “We’re selling access, not excess.”
Weakness: As of press time, only 12 restaurants had signed up.
Our Experience: I snagged a 7:30 p.m. table at the Slanted Door, but could have had one at 5:15 p.m. for free. Worth $20? Debatable.

NoWait is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–founded app that lets you use your phone to check the wait time at nearby restaurants and put your name on their list. It just went national, targeting walk-in restaurants (and, gasp, chains) ignored by OpenTable. Trick Dog, Mikkeller Bar, and Berkeley’s Comal are early local converts.
Competitive Edge: The “anti-reservation” app.
Weakness: Currently, it’s heavy on bars but light on restaurants.
Our Experience: there was only one option within a mile of my North Beach location. Still, having the ability to plan around a wait is nothing short of a miracle.

Rezhound is a piggyback service that notifies you when a reservation becomes available on OpenTable. You can sign up for any restaurant—as long as you’re willing to fill out a separate form for every day and time you want. Although Rezhound’s algorithm constantly scans OpenTable for new openings and sends immediate alerts, it’s up to you to actually make the reservation.
Competitive Edge: Let someone else hunt for your reservation.
Weakness: you might land that miracle table at State Bird Provisions—or you might not.
Our Experience: Rezhound found a table at four of the five restaurants i chose. but finding a table is not the same as landing one: Although I got a text announcing availability at Nopa that night, the spot was gone from OpenTable when I tried to reserve it 12 minutes later.

Apple app
Apple just filed a patent for a comprehensive ordering- and-reservation system that would integrate front-of-house and kitchen operations—wait times would shift based on the dishes ordered and their average cooking and eating times. There’s even a proposal to replace servers because, per the patent, “ordering is completely dependent on the waiter’s availability.”
Competitive Edge: Remains to be seen.
Weakness: It won’t be available for the foreseeable future, or possibly ever.
Our Experience: reading the patent summary wasn’t that enlightening, though i enjoyed its many convoluted diagrams, which appeared to have been drawn by the Unabomber.

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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